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Carolyn Curtin Alessio
Until I was twelve. I considered my mother an ethnic renegade. She'd repudiated her Irish-immigrant parents in a single, flagrant act, by marrying a young engineer by the name of Sergio Antonio Alessio. My pride in my mother's daring was great, and for years, when I signed my full name, I often paused, considering all the Irish surnames I might have had if my mother had complied with tradition and added to Curtin, her maiden name, a last name that might have begun and not ended with O.
In assuming my mother's heroism, however, I overlooked several key factors which suggested that perhaps my parents were not such an unlikely match: both were the children of European immigrants (my mother's parents hailed from County Limerick, my father's parents from Bassano del Grappa in Northern Italy); both were avid readers and had put themselves through college, and both were practicing Roman Catholics. But in my irrepressible ability to romanticize, I reveled in the improbability of their union. At Sunday Mass, when the priest spoke in his sermon of "mixed" marriages—ironically, he meant Catholic and Protestant—I privately substituted Irish and Italian. Even looking in the mirror took on a sort of mystique: though I have my father's dark eyes and ability to tan, my face has always been so freckled as to resemble an experiment in pointillism.
I learned many Irish customs and habits from my mother's mother, Mary O'Connor Curtin. Though it seemedincongruous to me, my mother's family had not renounced her for her marital defection: perhaps they viewed it as an inevitable dilution of the gene pool, or yet another trial in the family's narrative. In any event, I often wound up with my mother in Grandma Curtin's dim kitchen, in a Depression-era bungalow in a predominantly Irish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago.
Sipping tea from Beleek china dotted with pale shamrocks, we'd listen to scratchy recordings of Irish tenor John McCormick, or sometimes, the more modern Clancy Brothers who cavorted and sang such whimsical numbers as "The Boys Won't Leave the Girls Alone." In that house on Massasoit Street, my grandmother read us obituaries from the Tribune (focusing on the deceased with Irish names), smoked, and imparted folk beliefs. For example, she told us that a bird lingering on the roof of one's house foretold certain death. And always, my grandmother told stories from the Old Country, a place that she always called "back home," though she'd left it at age sixteen to come to the States, where she took a job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy German family.
Hardship and hyperbole were mainstays in my grandmother's tales. In one story that she repeated often, her mother broke her leg while working the family's farm. There were seven children then, a baby on the way, and a husband who wasn't always reliable. At this point in the story, my grandmother would pause and purse her lips, as though considering the pathos of the situation for the first time. Cigarette smoke rose up around her in tiny, gray cyclones. I would try to imagine my grandmother's family home, her ailing mother, her youngest sister Bridie, who later would die in my grandmother's arms. All I could summon up, though, was the damp Chicago kitchen in which we sat, sipping tea and listening. "But the Bonesetter came," my grandmother would say, leaning forward, "the Bonesetter came and fixed Ma's leg."
We were never certain who the Bonesetter was—a combination chiropractor and orthopedist, or even some kind of Celtic shaman. My grandmother took it for granted that we would understand the power of such a person. Further, she seemed to believe that answering petty inquiries about his profession might somehow weaken the Bonesetter's storied capabilities. Years later, I would read of a bonesetter in Ulysses, an old lady's "medicineman," but somehow I could not connect this definition with the semimythical hero of my grandmother's tales.
Despite the Bonesetter's ability to mitigate suffering, the majority of my grandmother's tales took on a maudlin twist, evolving into tales of misplaced love and longing, of dissipation and the failure to combat the cruelty of the surrounding world. Children, like her infant sister, died of quick, feverish illnesses; women over forty married out of desperation and bore children who were "never quite right." These tragedies were not confined to Ireland, however, but seemed to follow the immigrants to the States, where middle-aged men would keel over from heart attacks in pubs, priests would begin to spit up blood while saying a funeral mass, young women would spend their earnings on war bonds, only to receive word that their fiancés and their brothers had died overseas.
It would be years before I would read Joyce, Yeats, Frank O'Connor and Flannery O'Connor, but I learned early from my grandmother's heartbreaking stories a sense of Irishness that I would later translate—however illogically—into my own sense of complicity in the disappointing of God. As a child, however, I knew only that I experienced a curious mixture of yearning and relief when my grandmother would finish her stories for the day, and bid us "Safe Home" as she waved from the front porch, a cigarette still burning in her hand.
Predictably, it was my grandmother, not my mother, who told me about my mother's prophetic dream. One night during the late fifties in the Chicago house, my mother was awakened by a dream. A pleading, raspy voice was calling "Ma" again and again. Startled awake, my mother awoke her own mother, who assured her that nothing was wrong. The next morning, they received word from Ireland that Brigit McNamara O'Connor, my mother's grandmother, had passed away during the night.
One night during the summer I was twelve, my mother and I played Trivial Pursuit. My father and younger sister had gone for a bike ride and I was pleased and a bit smug at the prospect of having my mother's undivided attention. If the game went well, I planned to tell her about a new crush of mine, a boy who could play the clarinet so bewitchingly that a group of us sometimes gathered around the practice rooms at school to listen.
The game was barely underway. My mother had landed on Brown, our favorite category, "Arts & Literature." I reached for the card, located the question, and read, "In the play, `Dial "M" for Murder,' where was the key hidden?"
This one was easy. I knew that Hitchcock had made this play into a movie, and Grace Kelly had starred in it. My mother loved Grace Kelly, or Princess Grace, as she called her.
"Mom," I said. I waited, looked around at the family room's paneled walls, then turned back to my mother. Her face was pale, I saw, and her freckles were darker than usual.
"Mom? Are you tired?"
"I don't know," she said. "A little."
"Should we watch TV?"
"I'm sorry," my mother said. "I'm thinking of a man I saw that movie with. Jim O'Flaherty. His parents, Rose and Fip, lived down the block from us."
This was a name I had never heard her mention before. "Was he your boyfriend?" I said. "Did you go on dates?"
"We'd go dancing and to the show. Hitchcock was one of his favorites."
"Was he good-looking?"
"Black curly hair," my mother said. "Tall."
I didn't often get to talk to my mother on this level. "Did you kiss him?"
"It was innocent back then," my mother said. "He had a car, but we'd only drive places in it."
I still was not convinced he had existed. "What was his job?"
"Schoolteacher," my mother said. "For a while he'd worked in personnel at a factory downtown, but the bosses made him turn away Blacks. Jim hated it so he went back to school and became a teacher. Sixth grade."
A dark thought occurred to me. "Did he know Dad?"
"No," my mother said, gazing at the wall behind me. "Jim died four years before I met your father. Our last date was two nights before Jim died. June 15, 1954. We went to the Chicago Theater to see `Dial M for Murder.'"
I waited, and in a moment, she continued. "Ray Milland starred with Grace Kelly. I later read that they'd had an affair while they were filming it, but nobody seemed to know that then.
"After the movie, when we went out to the car, a bird was perched on its roof. Jim held out his finger, but the bird wouldn't budge. Finally we got in the car and drove off."
I struggled not to ask the next question, but I had already heard too much: "How did he die?"
"Car accident," my mother said. "He and two pals were going on a driving trip out East, and somewhere in Ohio, Jim fell asleep at the wheel. They drove into a pole and it crushed him and one of his friends. Jim was twenty-four."
I shifted position and my knee grazed the gameboard, knocking off one of the plastic pies. My chest felt tight inside; I was flooded with sorrow and shame.
"I never told my mother this," my mother said, "but at the funeral, Jim's sister told me he'd tried to call me before he left on the trip. But the line was busy—my mother had been on the phone a long time that night."
"Did you love him?" I asked. "Did you want to marry him?"
My mother hesitated. "I was backward then," she said. "I was working in a steno pool and hadn't even thought about college yet. I think," she said, looking at me, "I think he would've tired of me after a while."
I sat back, feeling enormously cheated by this answer; suddenly, my mother had betrayed both my romantic nature and the long-held belief that she had spent her early twenties forging a career and waiting to meet my father. Or at least, that she had tolerated other suitors until she discovered one whose family didn't eat soda bread and hold wedding receptions in basements that lasted all night, often into Sunday morning, at which point everyone would troop down the block to sunrise Mass. In my personal revisionist history, I had imagined my mother longing for supper-table conversation that floated around her in mellifluous, Mediterranean syllables, words she couldn't understand, but relished as foreign while she dipped her breadstick into a wine glass. This was my renegade version of my mother: an enterprising young woman determined to divert or at least complicate her own ethnic and cultural road. How, I wondered, could she have been someone who held hands at a Hitchcock movie with a young man who taught sixth graders to diagram sentences and held out his finger as a perch for a bird?
Later, I would think that I should have comforted my mother that night, for she had likely not told anyone this story for years. But all I could think about as she talked was, selfishly, that I had been a product more of chance than intention; perhaps my mother's first dating impulse had not been to rebel. Even later, when she married an Italian, wasn't he, too, a gentle man who made frequent visits to his elderly mother, a superstitious woman who often spoke of "malocchio" or the Evil Eye?
I wish I could say that I sympathized with my mother that night. Compassion, Flannery O'Connor once wrote, is a word that sounds good on anyone's lips. Years later, I would think of that night and the way my lips had failed to form any response to my mother's tale other than detached, factual questions, and a final, surly muteness. If she could not muster up fervor for a long-ago love, I reasoned, how could she understand my ardor for a thirteen-year-old clarinetist who wore skinny ties and smiled at me in the cafeteria? I sat there in the darkening family room, bitter, and embarrassed by my presumptions.
We did not resume the game that night. Soon, from the driveway we heard the clicking of bikes and the lowering of kickstands. My father and sister had returned from their ride.
"Well," my mother said, "we should clean up."
I flipped over the card in my hand. "The fifth step," I read. "Under the fifth step."
My mother looked at me.
"The key," I said, "was hidden under the fifth step." I handed my mother the card.
She studied it. "Yes," she said, then handed it back to me.
I returned the card to the pile and considered clearing the board. My mother got up and began to close the curtains, pausing between windows as my father's voice filled the hallway above us.
|from Lace Curtain||9|
|from Uphill Walkers||23|
|The Eldest Child||28|
|from Manhattan, When I Was Young||38|
|from The Mermaids Singing||51|
|from What Girls Learn||58|
|My Mother and Politics||71|
|Mother and 'Miss E.'||77|
|from The Rebel Girl||83|
|from Wait Till Next Year||94|
|My Mother Is Speaking from the Desert from Shadow Man||103|
|from The Autobiography of Mother Jones||120|
|Charting Life with a Daughter||137|
|The Child as Houseguest||147|
|from A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman||152|
|from Chasing Grace: Reflections of a Catholic Girl, Grown Up||171|
|Wildflowers from Monkeys||189|
|The Vocabulary of Absence||201|
|In the Beginning from Living Out Loud||223|
|The Need to Feed||229|
|The Goal from The New Motherhood||237|